Romantic fiction has always been hugely popular with Indian women of all ages. Until recently, there were very few opportunities for men and women to mix. With no real romance possible, women lapped up Mills & Boon and Georgette Heyer novels to experience the headiness of falling in love, even if the people and situations featured in the stories were very different from their own lives.
As a young girl, Naheed Hassan adored Georgette Heyer’s historical romances. The beautiful heroines, the grand titles, gowns, ballrooms and the sparkle of Regency romance thrilled her. But she couldn’t help wondering why these stories were not set in New Delhi or Lahore, and why they could not be about people who looked and spoke like her.
Many years later, Hassan has launched a web-publishing venture called Indireads, which provides thousands of South Asian women with romantic fiction that mirrors their values, traditions and societies. She hopes to add five to 10 books a month in the first few months – books that will provide “romance for the South Asian soul”.
An economist of Pakistani origin and currently based in Boston, Hassan has worked on managerial and social development projects across Africa.
“All western romantic fiction is about blonde, blue-eyed women who travel to Italy and are swept off their feet by a count,” says Hassan on the telephone from Boston. “I’m neither blonde nor blue-eyed, and there were no Italian millionaires anywhere near me.”
Moreover, the women in western romantic fiction make their own choices, by and large. In India and Pakistan, women have to consider their families’ wishes and expectations, not just their own desires; their options are very different.
Indireads currently has 40 writers from all over South Asia, some of them based outside the region. Though launched first on Valentine’s Day this year, the website has undergone a name change and operations have been delayed until next month, when readers will be able to go online, view the books and purchase them for 100 Indian rupees (Dh7) each; the books can be either read online or downloaded.
The act of falling in love, Hassan says, has universal elements that transcend culture and geography but there are also profound differences. “In most western fiction, the emotional dimension runs -parallel to the physical relationship. In South Asia, there is much more relationship-building and emotion before anything becomes physical,” she explains.
At Indireads, the stories are set firmly within South Asian culture, where most women end up in an arranged marriage. That said, the female characters in these romance are not going to be docile or helpless. “We have advised our writers that the women should be modern and able to hold their own, not women who are waiting to be swept off their feet,” says Hassan.
This sense of realism extends to the men, too. Hassan says she loves one story about a neighbour who is no longer young, has a receding hairline and is seen buying vegetables in a supermarket. But he’s the hero because he is kind and decent as well as “hot”.
And, unusually for South Asia, a number of romances feature divorcees and widows engaging in a second marriage.
One of the stories is about a divorced schoolteacher with a son in Lahore who ends up marrying a widower, the father of one of her students. The decision is practical, based on mutual convenience, and they fall in love only after getting married. This would seem like putting the carriage before the horse to western readers but in South Asia, falling in love after an arranged marriage is the norm.
Romantic fiction has always been immensely popular in India but it is available only in regional languages, such as Bengali, Tamil, Urdu or Malayalam. It is, in fact, a rich tradition and Hassan plans to take these vernacular novels and translate them into English to give them a wider audience – mainly among English-speaking, urban, educated women.
Five years ago, lured by the enormous Indian market, Mills & Boon launched an Indian series: stories set in India about Indians and by Indians. But Hassan has been unimpressed by these romances, calling them too “formulaic”, with descriptions of the hero invariably including words such as “rugged”, which may not, she says (with no disrespect intended) always apply to South Asian men.
“They’ve only launched about four novels in all this time and you get the sense that they’ve just changed the names and locations to make them India – otherwise it’s the same formula,” points out Hassan.
While Bollywood fulfils the need for romantic movies in India, what Indireads hopes to do is meet the need for tales of love that can be quickly devoured during a train or plane journey.